'Victoria & Abdul'
On one level, ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is kind of fascinating. The film tries so damn hard to tell a kind and inclusive story to make up for the racism of the British Empire. Yet despite all the jokes about bumbling royal Brits and their racism, the movie ultimately suffers from that very special brand of condescending racism that isn’t so much about hatred as much as a refusal to actually engage with any foreign culture, even one that it’s trying to put on a pedestal. There are a couple good jokes in the movie, though.
Once again, Judi Dench stars as Queen Victoria in this expansion of the ‘Mrs. Brown’ cinematic universe. This time it’s an older Victoria. She’s clearly near death and frail, and her spoiled children (including an amusing Eddie Izzard as the man who will be king) are knocking on the door desperate for her to go. As part of a garish ceremony, two young men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are brought from India to give Victoria a special coin. Through a series of odd, awkward encounters, Victoria befriends Abdul. Eventually, he becomes something of a confidante and an assistant, teaching her his language and culture as well as causing a divide between the queen and her staff, who are infuriated by this obsession with an Indian man.
Obviously, that means the movie is an excuse to poke fun at pompous British dismissal of the countries held under the thumb of the former empire. The film has a lot of scenes of Brit characters looking aghast at a foreign culture as the audience is invited to giggle at their racism while feeling superior about the fact that they no longer hold those specific brands of bigotry. Fair enough. That’s a noble enough purpose and this is a true story that was washed from history until recently.
Director Stephen Frears (‘High Fidelity’, ‘Philomena’) stages and shoots it with a certain breezy style that gets fun and fancy free work from his cast, with just enough visual style for this stagy silliness to feel cinematic. You can tell that everyone involved meant well. Unfortunately, the film short-changes the Indian characters that it’s supposed to side with.
In theory, Abdul is the titular star of the movie, and is supposed to be a bridge between cultures. However, he doesn’t have much personality. He initially appears to be a bit of a con man with a certain joie de vivre that makes him inspiring. After a while, even those minor characteristics vanish. He soon becomes little more than a “magic Indian” trope, a guy present only to inspire and entertain without any human qualities. Fazal tries his best to forge something of a human performance from the small bits and bobs he’s given, but it never adds up to much. He’s a stereotype and a writing device with little attempt from ‘Billy Elliot’ screenwriter Lee Hall or Frears to understand him. There’s a chance that a more complex portrayal of Abdul may have been written and shot but was whittled down during editing to ensure that ‘Victoria & Abdul’ succeeds in its middlebrow goals of inspirational entertainment without much weight or meaning. That’s certainly possible, just unlikely. The whole affair has the same whiff of imperial racism masked as an inspirational apology that made ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ movies so nauseating.
Fortunately, this is a far better made film that either of those senior-sploitation flicks. Frears is a talented director who does his best with middling material. He gets a wonderfully cranky performance out of Judi Dench, even if she can do this sort of material in her sleep these days. Other English character actors including Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams and Eddie Izzard get a couple good scenes and good laughs. ‘Victoria & Abdul’ will certainly appeal to a particular brand of undemanding audience hoping for gentle emotions, gentle laughs, gentle drama, the illusion of a social message, and cozy costume drama trappings. The movie wants to be a little more than that, but has neither enough laughs nor thoughtful observations to succeed. It’s a movie that dismisses old dated forms of racism while confirming new ones. I suppose that makes ‘Victoria & Abdul’ a moderately intriguing social artifact, but it’s still not much of a film.